'The Knights Templar': Mexico's newest drug cartel
Pictures of the latest objects seized by the police in the Mexican state of Michoacan, revealed that the mysterious 'Knights Templar" drug cartel is more bizarre than most people imagine.
There were four hooded tunics, with a red cross, a metal helmet, and a pamphlet or Templar rule book. This drug cartel claims to draw inspiration from the medieval Christian warriors who fought to protect Jerusalem and the Holy Grail.
No one knows if its founder, Servando Gomez, a school teacher, was a history entuthiast or simply read the Da Vinci Code.
The rules in the modern day 'templar bible' call for observance of 'gentleman' like behaviour and respect for women – but also state that any disclosure of knights templar activities will result in the death of the person and his whole family, and confiscation by the cartel of the snitch’s property. Watch my tv report from Michoacan.
The cartel is like a secret society.
The Mexican Templars have an initiation ritual, which apparently includes dressing up like knights from the Middle Ages, and performing blood pacts.
The cartel recruits drug users and enrolls them in the organisation's rehabilitation centers; the process is closely monitored and has a strong religious component.
The double standard is striking: the Templars can not take drugs, and yet they run one of the biggest methamphetamines traffic corridors to the United States.
A resident of Morelia, the capital of the Michoacan province, tells me the cartel that preceded the Templars, La Familia, hired 'cooks' who had learnt to manufacture meth (known as ice or crystal) in the US.
As the government regulated the sale of one of meth's core components, pseudoephedrine (found in cold medicine), the 'crystal makers' or cristaleros moved back to Mexico and now get supplies from China through ports on the Pacific coast.
The young recruits are told to be 'gentlemen', the word for 'knight' in Spanish means a 'gentleman', but they have to kill those who they judge as thieves, rapists, or kidnappers, hanging them from bridges and attaching messages to their bodies.
The government of Felipe Calderon has declared war on the cartels.
It receives substantial military aid from the US to combat these drug gangs.
The national security spokesperson says the Templars are an offshoot of La Familia and their beliefs are a mere PR campaign to gain support of Michoacan residents.
President Calderon is from Michoacan, and his sister is running for governor.
But others see the religious element as a calculated move by its founder to prevent his hit men leaking information, while giving the group an aura of mystery that could inspire fear and respect. It is hard to know
The cartel's structure, wealth, and size. It is perhaps the second most notorious Mexican cartel in terms of killing methods, the most vicious one, the 'Zetas', is a group formed by Mexican army special forces in the 90s.
I travelled to two Michoacan prisons and tried to speak with a member of the Templars or La Familia, but the only person who had ever agreed to talk to a journalist had already been released.
In Apatzingan, the stronghold of Servando Gomez, aka 'la tuta', there are currently 1,800 federal police and soldiers trying to hunt him down.
While we were in town the police announced they had captured the chief hit man from La Familia. He was immediately flown to the capital, after being questioned by the police. Journalists are never allowed to speak to the detainees.
Most residents refuse to talk openly about the Knight's Templar.
Some say they never harmed the community; most seem more annoyed by the federal police presence.
The mayor of Apatzingan, Grnaro Guizar was very skeptical about the arrests the military operation has produced so far.
He was once snatched out of his office, locked up for 11 months for his alleged ties with drug cartels, and later acquitted.
He denies all these accusations and says he has never been friends with a single drug lord.
"You want to know what the feds do? They go to a town and round up innocent people: the mariachi band, the guy who sells popsicles in the street corner, the whole crowd at a quinceanera (sweet-sixteen) party," he says.
Once in jail, he adds, the detainees must prove they are not affiliated to the cartel to be released.
It is possible that the Templars are not even hiding, and they get protection from local sources.
The road to Apatzingan has giant sized banners displaying photos of the top three leaders and offering a nearly $2.5 m reward for information.
All the signs had the faces and names covered up by spray paint. The secret society is battling to remain anonymous.